6 Foreign Expressions You Should Know

By Daniel Scocco

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Whether you like it or not, foreign expressions represent an integral part of the English language (and of many other languages, too). Knowing the meaning and usage of the most used ones is very important. First of all because it will enable you to understand pieces of text that include them. Secondly, because you might also need to use those expressions on particular situations (avoid using them just to sound smart though). Below you will find 6 foreign expressions commonly used in English, enjoy!

1. De Facto

De facto is a Latin expression that means “actual” (if used as an adjective) or “in practice” (if used as an adverb). In legal terms, de facto is commonly used in contrast to de jure, which means “by law.” Something, therefore, can emerge either de facto (by practice) or de jure (by law).

And what of the plastic red bench, which has served as his de facto home for the last 15 years and must by now be a collector’s item? (NY Times)

2. Vis-à-Vis

The literal meaning of this French expression is “face to face” (used as an adverb). It is used more widely as a preposition though, meaning “compared with” or “in relation to.”

It’s going to be a huge catalyst in moving the whole process forward and it really strengthens the U.S. position vis-a-vis our trading partners (Yahoo! News)

3. Status quo

This famous Latin expression means “the current or existing state of affairs.” If something changes the status quo, it is changing the way things presently are.

Bush believes that the status quo — the presence in a sovereign country of a militant group with missiles capable of hitting a U.S. ally — is unacceptable. (Washington Post)

4. Cul-de-sac

This expression was originated in England by French-speaking aristocrats. Literally it means “bottom of a sack,” but generally it refers to a dead-end street. Cul-de-sac can also be used metaphorically to express an action that leads to nowhere or an impasse.

But the code of omerta was in effect for two carloads of fans circling the cul-de-sac to have a look at the house. (Reuters.com)

A cul-de-sac of poverty (The Economist)

5. Per se

Per se is a Latin expression that means “by itself” or “intrinsically.”

The mistake it made with the Xbox is that there is no game console market per se; there are PlayStation, GameCube, and Xbox markets. (PCMag.com)

6. Ad hoc

Ad hoc, borrowed from the Latin, can be used both as an adjective, where it means “formed or created with a specific purpose,” and as an adverb, where it means “for the specific purpose or situation.”

The World Bank’s board on Friday ordered an ad hoc group to discuss the fate of President Paul Wolfowitz (CNN)

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129 Responses to “6 Foreign Expressions You Should Know”

  • David

    I knew them all, but can only remember using ‘status quo’ or ‘per se’. Status quo when speaking, and per se when writing, why?
    Status quo is simply the best way to talk about “the way things are”, particularly in terms of conservative politics (from all sides of the spectrum, partisan fool), stopping us from the kind of progress that leaves people stupid, cruel and more destructive than any other, animal species.
    Per se is a LITTLE retarded and up yourself, but is super economical and fits nicely at the end of a sentence.
    Cul de sac, well, I would only use it in the literal – in other contexts, and the other 3 terms, are stodgy – used by pretentious, elitist people, out of touch with the times 🙂 And yes, trying not to be a fascist in terms of style and little would be gained pandering to lowest common denominators, but is the instinct to use the word not unconsciously a form of showing off, instead of elucidation.
    Sticking to the examples above:
    De Facto could be replaced by NOTHING, and the sentence is fantastic still!
    Vis-a-vis, “in relation to” would have served far better and is not some wanker, wanking.
    Ad hoc, MAYBE, but think about it – the World Bank is mercenary, as is probably any organisation “forming ad hoc groups” – it wouldn’t be exaggerated and probably far truer to say “conspired to form a group” or some such. In this case, the ad hoc is very economical (I luurve economising you can see), but it shrouds meaning, I believe. Particularly because only about 5% or less people in the English speaking world would know or understand it.
    OKAY, so you are talking to someone (writing for them), the idea of “Imperialism” is central – a term certainly, poorly understood. You would say many other things and probably even give a definition, (re the context), to help someone understand.
    Yet a term like ad hoc just isn’t worth it’s (small) weight!
    You saw that re, before the previous sentence? Another valid, economical replacement for oh so stodgiest “vis-a-vis”!
    Elitism is not all bad, but people, wake up to how using or maintaining it in language is not always so smart, necessary or even the best way to express.
    Oh, oui, the richness of French terms in the English language. Well, boring, how about we look to all the other cultures and alien languages to see what riches we could adapt for more LYRICAL, even concise, meaning.
    Bisous. (Kisses).

  • David

    PS. I ranted and even forgot to remind you of simple history – that French is such a large influence, and French terms are so common due to an Aristocratic French presence in England. The ruling classes really did engage so much with French as another way to separate themselves from the worthless, common people. English was the vulgar language – lettuce take it back!

  • Giveback


    This is yet another good and useful article.
    While you are correct, I think it is also important to emphasize that “ad hoc” is used in the context of bringing across something that is unplanned. Thanks.

  • Doug

    “You should all speak french ^^.”

    Il y a beaucoup de nous qui le parlons, même ici aux Etats-Unis.

  • Peter

    @David: it’s “Persian”, not “Farsi”.

  • David

    Ha ha, Peter. I put myself RIGHT out there, open to so many criticisms – I support wildly alleging (even) without fact, proof, or even thought! That is IF it comes from a wildly intelligent place – judge whoever may.
    However, you have called me on something erroneous, and you are wrong. Of course we can call it Farsi – just because some or many Iranians insist on the idea of “Persian” as their nationality / language, does not make it a law or even a rule. You should be aware that just when you think you are asserting the will of some “progressive” idea encompassing Persia, Iran, Empire, 20thC(.com), Pre & Post Revolution, internal and/or external IMPOSITION – you are wrong! There are valid arguments, self determined and not, for and against your point.
    Most worthwhile Iranians don’t care that much, but sometimes:
    1) My head is up my bum, I don’t understand one darned thing about Imperial History, so separating it’s progressive points from the oppressive terror ain’t gonna happen, 2) Show me the money, I’m one of millions of Bourgeois Iranian Diaspora, hyper conservative cunts, campaigning against the dissolution of extreme class (up to and including royal) inequities in Iran… veiling that in easy, propagandistic slander about… veils, 3) They stole it from us, and now we’re taking it back, 4) Go home GRINGO, don’t you tell us what we want to call it! Etc. Ad nauseum 🙂
    Kisses. Farsi Baladi?

  • Susan H

    @David tanho kami farsi baladam. 🙂 I’m curious as to why so many persian words appear to derive from the french? i.e. be resturan raftam va goftam “lotfan yek shireeni, merci” (I hope that’s correct)

  • David

    Hello SUSAN. Salaam! Is it Kami, not Kam? Phonetically at least? Does transliteration (a subject I haven’t thought much about), add vowels sometimes?
    I speak less than Kam/i.
    No, I don’t speak Farsi 🙂 Sorry. I see I may have been misleading… I spoke it as a child – between mother & son, but the commonest thing, it seems, is that a child loses a language as one’s parents do not speak it between them, and as one’s racist society, school, etc, beats all foreign affectations, language, out of them, us. I do hope to get it back, but live in a city which must have only a handful of Farsi speakers at most, if any, (and I can’t really learn from books).
    BUT, I can answer your question! 2 principle reasons:
    – Farsi, a fairly ancient language, has quite a small vocabulary, AND

    – Haven’t you noticed that (particularly with the Bourgeois) worldwide, people look up to/ love/ are obsessed with English and/ or French. The Two Kings of European “language Imperialism” and imposition. (Spanish might be the most widely spoken, but I have another thesis why Spanish doesn’t have so many people pulling themselves off to it’s sounds… well, funny, because those most enamoured with [affected, homo-repressed, King lisping] Spanish, tend to be people from the English speaking world, and… the French! 🙂 At least, I’ve known too many – incidentally, just met a French wanker during Carnaval who sometimes insisted we speak Spanish instead of Portugese!?!?!?!?!
    1) Necessity, “modernising” world
    2) European aspirations.

    Good on them, I agree, French is nicer on the tongue and ears than English, if it were a choice between the two.

    Hope not to bore or estrange you,
    Much love, Khoda-Hafez.

  • œ

    I, too, love this list, and like many others think it’s only fault is that it lacks completeness. I’m especially starteled that nobody has mentioned one of my all-time favourites, even in the comments. Does nobody love it but me? Like they say: de gustibus non est disputandum (there is no disputing about taste).

    To be fair, I wouldn’t even know how to pronounce this in English, but luckily the written nature of internet communication spares me the embarassment of having to try.

  • Lucy

    cul-de-sac – the expression comes from Catalan and not French, as one of my Catalan students pointed out. the word “cul” means the body part “bottom” (British English).

  • Valley~*

    You know, the only times I have found myself using [sic] was when quoting from a professor lmao… good thing they took it lightly… :/

  • maya


    I knew somewhere such an ad hoc website would exist …de facto!!
    Mr Daniel, youve just got urself one cool new “stalker”!!
    peace n luv

    Ma *_________* ya

    I <3 this!!

  • Peter

    David: Aside from the fact that the long-established English name of the language is “Persian”, google “Persian not Farsi” for a gazillion requests by native Persian speakers, including the The Academy of Persian Language and Literature (Persian sort of Académie française), to please stop calling their language “Farsi”.

  • venqax

    David: Given your upset with the imperialist oppression of the Europeans who robbed you of your Farsi, you might just show them a thing or two by moving to Farsiland, wherever that might be. I am always fascinated by people who come to a place, complain about it, and refuse to leave.

    @Peter: I get similarly miffed at those sho call Burma Myanmar– a a name only the monstrous regime there promotes, not the Burmese people.

  • Dale Fedderson

    The French speakers in these comments say cul does not have a risque or raunchy feel, so I believe the “cul” in cul-de-sac would be better translated as “butt”, not “ass”. For instance, we in English use “butt” to mean not just buttocks, but also the butt of a hammer–the base or bottom of the hammer.

    And I think the butt-of-the-sack implies that this kind of dead-end street MUST include a turn-around; otherwise it is just a dead-end, with no “butt”.

  • Robert

    I thought “cul-de sac” meant a desireable street location, which it does, but I now know the history and source, so I am less ignorant.I like this site, my mind definitley needs this kind of help. Writing well does not come easy for me.
    p.s.-Thank you Professor Priscilla Trowbridge from N.A.U 1978, what you did for me still means a lot to me. Never before or never after did I have a Professor travel 217 miles to a bar in old downtown Yuma just to feel the words from my story about my Native American friend Veral Vest, a wonderful charming alcoholic man who worked in a commercial laundry and and drank beer at the bar next door every day after work. He died a few years after I wrote about him and the bar. He was a good man, and I’m glad I got to know him.

  • Jim

    It amazes me that these “I think it means…” exchanges go on and on.
    As Mom frequently said “Look it up in the dictionary!” Educate yourselves! And the claim that a word’s definition in the source language has NO relevance to its use in English is utter rubbish.
    BTW, the Latin definition of “sic” is “thus”, in English manuscripts indicating that a quote has been faithfully rendered, though it contains spelling, grammatical or usage error; essentially, it is a device for mocking the quotee.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @totof022 on June 19, 2007

    You need to learn to capitalize French, Latin, German, ENGLISH, American, Brit, Canadian, Dutch, Danish, Spanish, Mexican, etc., each and every time that you write them in English.

    Not doing so simply makes you look hugely ignorant, and with your being French, it makes you look presumptuous, too. You wish to tell the rest of the world what to do, but you don’t want to do simple things like capitalizing proper nouns and proper adjectives.

    I am a native french speaker and studied latin (among french, german end english) in high school.

    Mabe you americans and brits should invest some time and energy into (really) learning a different language (you know, what ROW speaks).

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree whole heartedly:
    @Peter: I get similarly miffed at those who call Burma “Myanmar”– a a name that only the MONSTROUS regime there promotes, and not the Burmese people.

    Yes, Burmese people, Burmese language, Burmese culture, Burmese cats, Burmese tiger traps, Burmese education, all from the country proudly called Burma.

    By the way, the Department of State of the United States recognizes Burma as the official name of that country, and not anything else. The Department of State is the one in charge of the foreign relations of this country. It sincerely opposes the oppressiive military regime in Burma.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The French phrase “en masse” expresses an idea that we do not have a word or short phrase for in English.
    The equivalent adverb in German is “massenweise”. In German, the words that end in “weise” are almost always adverbs.

    For an example sentence: “The Austrian troops attacked the Italian Army en masse.” That is, as a huge mass of men, with no attempt for maneuver or deception – in a frontal assault.

    The Luftwaffe based in France attacked England en masse in 1940.

  • Rob

    Great site and list, but there are many other non-English (words and) phrases used in everyday English that the list would benefit from. Examples include en masse, deja vu, pro bono, c’est la vie, raison d’etra, quid pro quo, pro rata, versus, et cetera – and so on 😉

    I’m specifically talking about the things that you’d get in everyday conversation, or read in newspapers, magazines and general books. I’m not referring to famous Latin quotes (“Cogito ergo sum”, “Vini, vidi, vici”, etc.), which prove you learned about Julius Caesar and the like in your youth, or some of the more arcane Latin phrases you’d hear in legalese (“habeas corpus”, “pro tem”, “ipso facto”, etc.) – even though some phrases like “pro bono” come from the legal world, but have also moved into more normal English usage.

    I’ve enjoyed reading some of the comments here, though some people need to lighten up a bit about the literal translation versus the accepted usage. In most cases, if you look at the literal translation, it is easy to see how the everyday usage evolved from there.

    For instance, “cul-de-sac”. It means “bottom of the bag”, “end of the bag” or indeed “arse of the bag”. It refers to a turnaround road, and not a dead-end, per Daniel’s definition. Just like what happens when you get into the bottom of a bag, you have to turn around to come out again. Same with a cul-de-sac; go in, loop round, and come out again.

    As for “ad hoc”, Daniel’s definition is absolutely right. Ad hoc means “for a specific purpose”. While it is true that many ad hoc teams, organisations, committees, or whatever appear to be haphazard and without a structure or plan, that is not relevant to the definition or the usage. Ad hoc does not mean “random”. Quite the opposite, in fact. “We’ll do that ad hoc” means “We’ll do that as and when we need it”.

  • David Warley

    Having received a liberal education including some Latin and French I didn’t find any of these expressions to be at all “foreign”.

    Having some acquaintance with more demotic French, as opposed to what they teach at school, I learned that “cul” refers to a part of the anatomy as in “Baisez moi le cul” (Kiss my a***)

    So a “cul-de-sac” would be a particularly useless or problematic item. But where I come from it just means “No through road”.

    I do find American English usage to be sometimes very foreign. When at a meeting I may ask to table something that I want to talk about. Ie put it on the table so we can talk about it. I was surprised to find that my US colleagues thought I meant put it under the table where we can all ignore it. For that we use a carpet.

  • Puku

    Some more are
    1. ad. infinitum.
    2. et.al.
    3. quid-pro-quo
    4. Quad Erat Deonstradum (QED)

  • Chris

    Carefull with cul-de-sac. With phrases, french tend to never use literal translation, making it extremely difficult for un-native speakers to relate the phrases (successfully). Please note that ‘cul’ does not mean bottom, ‘cul’ means ass. Their is a popular french phrase to have ones ass between two stools.” Avoir le cul entre deux chaises”

  • Haris

    Hi Daniel, i did not expect to see these expressions at once. I was looking for cul-de-sac, and your post gave me the foreign expressions. thanks a lot.

  • Grey

    I would like to add something about the use of ‘per se’, since I am Dutch and the phrase is used a lot in the Netherlands (however with a slightly different meaning)
    In fact, ‘per se’ is used meaning something like ‘necessarily’, for example we say ‘Dat hoeft niet per se.’, meaning ‘It is not really necessary’, or something like ‘Moet je dit per se doen?’ meaning ‘Do you necessarily have to do this?’

    ‘Per se’ is in fact used a lot in the Netherlands (it has become kind of an untranslatable phrase, everybody simply uses ‘per se’ in these situations) so I thought it was funny to read that it is not commonly used in English.

    I don’t think this will add a lot to the discussion on this page, but the more you know, right? 😉

  • Cantor

    I mistakenly thought that “ad hoc” necessarily has a negative connotation. When it is used in the sense of “done without planning because of immediate need,” a negative connotation is certainly waiting in the shadows.

  • Sebastian

    ‘Cul’ in cul-de-sac is French for ‘bum’,’bottom’,’arse (ass)’, as in the thing that you sit upon.

    Fun fact: the play ‘Oh! Calcutta!’, which stunned 60s and 70s audiences with full nudity, was a pun on the French phrase ‘O quel cul t’as!’, meaning ‘Oh what a lovely arse you have!’.

  • Dorie

    To David Warley, who wrote (“on August 13, 2014 12:34 pm”),
    “I do find American English usage to be sometimes very foreign. When at a meeting I may ask to table something that I want to talk about. Ie put it on the table so we can talk about it. I was surprised to find that my US colleagues thought I meant put it under the table where we can all ignore it. For that we use a carpet.”

    David, you have a misunderstanding of what Americans think “to table” means. They do not think that it means to put something _under_ a table!

    For Americans, to “table” something means to move it to a (different) table and to leave it there for the moment, with the intention that it might be considered at a later time. Sometimes the intention is that the topic will remain undiscussed indefinitely.

    It’s like putting something on the “back burner” of a stove — taking an item away from the group’s focus and putting it aside for the moment, but not saying that it will be thrown away entirely (although that might be what happens in the end).

    This is how the Cambridge English Dictionary defines it:
    “UK: to suggest something for discussion
    US: to delay discussion of a subject”

    You can check out a longer explanation at:

    There are several other commonly-used business / meeting-procedural sorts of terms that mean differing things in British and American English. It’s really confusing!

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